Big fat Gypsy Traveller myths

Seems like everyone and their extended family has had something to say about Channel 4's vulgar over-the-top creation Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.

I have adopted the same avoidance strategy that has served me so well for "Wife Swap", "The Only Way is Essex" and the rest. Others in the Amnesty office have been taking years off their lives by wading into the online debates. Cue fury and frustration as they engage in keyboard-to-keyboard combat with some of the worst prejudices still lurking in the darker recesses of the Scottish (and wider) psyche.

I thought that Vicky Allen in last week's Sunday Herald made a good job of navigating through the various minefields involved in raising a critique of the programme. Her key point was that various behaviours featured in the show, which were presented as part of Gypsy culture, were little more than good, old-fashioned gender abuse and inequality.

From the all-too-numerous details of the programmes which have made it past my defences, it is a valid point. But it left me with two overlapping concerns.

Firstly I've lost count of the Amnesty reports I've seen where someone is trying to pass off gender abuse and inequality as part of some treasured cultural heritage. Not acceptable. Abuse is abuse, however you wrap it up.

But I've also heard a number of generalisations hurled against this particular culture – everything from dodging tax to dodging soap. There's nothing like actually speaking to a few Gypsy Travellers to see these for the myths and prejudices they are.

So here's my letter to the paper, trying to balance these views. Not online at the time of writing this blog, so I've included the text. Thanks are due to the Sunday Herald for plonking it right in the middle of the page, with accompanying headline and photo. 

 

I was pleased to see your essay of the week (“Why Fat Gypsy Weddings are a Feminist Issue”) thoughtfully review the wide variety of opinions held by and about members of Scotland’s Gypsy Traveller population.

On behalf of Amnesty International I have frequently raised fundamental human rights concerns over the situation for Scottish Gypsy Travellers. These include the same rights to health, education and housing as everyone else, but also a right to cultural life that is under increasing pressure from a combination of modern life and wide-ranging prejudice and discrimination.

Yet women’s organisations have fought a long and hard battle against the idea that domestic abuse can be considered a family or community matter. The right to cultural determination does not trump the individual right to be free from violence and abuse and the reports of grabbing and of female domestic servitude that have appeared merit a full response from the police.

To get the balance right it is important to note the numerous community members who have also spoken out against these practices. Sadly domestic abuse and gender inequality are features of life across Scotland. It can and must be tackled without demonising any one culture or feeding the cultural stereotypes which already create misunderstanding and divisions and blight community relations.

Yours,

John Watson
Programme Director, Scotland
Amnesty International

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